These days, there seems to be a lot of confusion about what the term “sex-positivity” means. Indeed, the term can mean different things to different people, and that’s alright! Increasingly, however, I’ve been seeing it thrown around as a catch-all term for a hedonistic love of sex or as a shutdown on any critique of sexual behaviors, and I think that is a problem. Below are some of the most common things I’ve seen sex-positivity confused for, and why they’re bullshit.
1. Sex-positivity is Not Brazen Raunchiness
This is possibly the most annoying thing I’ve seen lately in segments of the sex-positivity movement: raunchiness for the sake of “positivity.” I’m no prude, and sexiness certainly has it’s time and place, but appropriating the movement of sex- or body-positivity for the sake of your own desire to gallivant nakedly across a stage and laugh about “what’s the deal with penises, amirite?” is just rewd as fuck, and to the more modest of our sex-positive friends incredibly tiresome.
Being sex positive does not mean being promiscuous necessarily, or even most of the time. Nor does it mean that sex is something naturally meant to be put on display for entertainment. Certainly sex can manifest in these ways completely healthily, but for people to conflate sex-positivity with those things does a disservice to people who believe that sexual expression is healthy and a good thing, but do not themselves believe in sharing it with the public or making light of it. Further, the idea that sex-positivity is entirely about blue humor and in-your-face raciness makes the philosophy look immature, and not the serious movement it aspires to be.
2. Sex-positivity Does Not Excuse All Consensual Acts From Critique
Heina Dadabhoy of Skepchick, although not a sex-positive feminist, said it best: sex positivity should not be “used as a bludgeon by which to silence criticism of anything sex-related.” Got a fetish that’s problematic for racial/cultural/women’s rights reasons? You are not immune from criticism (or at least some critical inquiry) in the name of sex-positivity. I consider myself a sex-positive feminist because I believe that sex as a general umbrella term for human sexual behavior is generally positive and should be celebrated to the fullest extent, whatever that means for each person. That does not mean that all sexual desire is inherently good. I definitely believe in pathologizing what is known to be unhealthy (in the sense that it causes or is likely to cause physical, personal or social harm); and sex-positive people who believe that all paraphilias are positive and normal grate on me and are probably strawmaning sex-positivity.
3. Sex-positivity Is Not Enjoying All Things Sexy
Similar to #2, it’s okay to not be totally on board with everything sexual in existence and still be sex-positive as long as you don’t shame anyone for what they enjoy (barring, of course, enjoying something that hurts people). Sex-positivity should be, and in my experience with other sex-positive feminists is, as much about what you choose not to engage in (see: prudes, asexuals) as it is what actions you do take. I mean, let’s not pretend that all sex-positive people are big fans of thinking about that thing their parents did to make them one night, right? That shit is nearly universally gross. (And yet still perfectly okay! Wouldn’t want to be sex-negative!)
I’ve met self-described “sex-positive” people who, in the name of sex-positivity, strain to find all forms of sexuality wonderful and magical and amazing, and that’s just strange and unnatural to me. Kink not your thing? Perfectly okay, just don’t shame people who choose to engage in or enjoy it themselves.
4. Sex-positivity Does Not Mean Liberation By Increased Sex
I recognize that a lot of the sources I’m using in this article are from people who do not identify as sex-positive feminists, and that that may make my point a bit less convincing when I talk about what sex-positivity is and isn’t. And I’m about to cite another such argument, because while the author does not call herself a sex-positive feminist, I believe that the type of thinking she is exemplifying can certainly fall within the purview of sex-positive feminism, and that it should.
The Tumblr blog Counterstorytelling makes the point here that the idea that increased sexual expression leads to liberation and empowerment (which was a tenet of early sex-positivity, as seen in the 1960s) is one that primarily applies to white women; for women of color, being more expressive sexually often perpetuates stereotypes of exotic eroticism instead. This, however, is not an artifact of sex-positivity as I have experienced it (extensively), and shouldn’t be. Sex-positivity is frequently related to and associated with the idea of choice feminism, although it is important to note that they exist separately of each other, and it is not about increased sexual activity or sexual display. Instead, it is about empowering people to engage in healthy, consensual sexual activities (or the lack thereof, in the case of asexuals) as they see fit. In short, sex-positivity is an anti-shame philosophy that focuses on encouragement of choice and personal preference.
5. Sex-positivity Is Not A Free Pass For Abusers
Sex-negative and sex-critical people sometimes like to point out that the world of BDSM and alternative sexuality host a significant number of abusers who use kink as a cover for their abusive tendencies, and that what appears to be “safe, sane, and consensual” behavior may actually be abuse masquerading as kink. This is certainly true, and I think in many circumstances being a member of the BDSM community makes it easier for abusers to hide, appear normal, and excuse their treatment of victims. But abusive individuals certainly don’t need the help of BDSM and kink to enable their abuse; the current social climate does more than enough to permit their behavior.
That BDSM sometimes provides a guise for abusers to hide behind is not a failing of BDSM itself, nor is it to be considered a problem of sex-positivity for encouraging the sort of engagements that some abusers take advantage of. Most sex-positive individuals recognize that many abusers are also practitioners of kink and alternative sexuality, and that “SSC” (safe, sane and consensual) BDSM and abuse are not to be conflated, despite, to outsiders at least, sometimes being similar in appearance.
6. Sex-positivity Is Not About Individual Choices Empowering Women As A Whole
One of the biggest misunderstandings about sex-positivity and choice feminism that I have encountered is the idea that according to sex-positivity, when (for example) a woman chooses to act in porn, she is making a choice to do so and is therefore empowering women collectively. This is patently untrue; an act that may be empowering for one individual certainly does not have to be for all women, a small individual choice generally has no bearing on the liberation or empowerment of women as a whole, and further (I imagine) could even be counter to the interest of empowerment for women as a whole. Whether a decision is “empowering” or not depends on the individual and his or her choice, and not what it may or may not do for women collectively.
At the end of the day, sex-positivity is about individuals making decisions and having preferences, celebrating those preferences so long as they don’t hurt people, and recognizing that we make decisions based on a variety of different factors and that those factors are sometimes difficult to delineate and dissect. It is not a philosophy that holds that sex is always good, or that sex must be engaged in for a person to be healthy. It is my hope that with increased discussion about sex and sex-positivity, these myths will disappear, and with them the idea that to cast a critical glance at sexuality is to be sex-negative.